The Complete Beginner's Guide to Shotguns
Posted by Brad Stephenson on Aug 27th 2020
A shotgun is a wonderful tool with multiple uses. It’s widely regarded as the primary hunting weapon for birds and small game in the United States. It’s also the primary weapon for deer hunting in Virginia and in many other states.
Many folks also enjoy using shotguns for competitive and recreational shooting sports. And it’s the best choice, in my opinion, for a home defense weapon.
Shotguns and Home Defense
In a home defense situation, stopping the threat is critical. Since a shotgun offers the homeowner a wider projectile path and more control of the weapon than a handgun, a shotgun should be in every home defense plan. It’s easy to use and control. It has devastating power. And It’s intimidating to an intruder.
A shotgun expels multiple projectiles with each pull of the trigger. That being the case, it has an amplified effect on the target more so than the single, smaller projectile of a rifle or handgun.
Additionally, when an open choke is used allowing a quick spread of the pellets, a shotgun is able to remain effective even if the shooter is not 100% “on target” and might have missed the target with a handgun or rifle.
The pump action shotgun, with its distinctive “cha-chunk” sound when chambering a round, has been the iconic home defense firearm for years. The sound alone is enough to send many would-be home invaders running. Also, the pump shotgun has long been recognized as an extremely reliable platform for firing multiple rounds with relative ease.
If it’s true that 90% of gun fights are over in 3 shots or less, then most people don’t need an enormous amount of ammunition to handle a home defense situation. Train and practice, then make each shot count. Most likely, it’ll be over quick.
Shotgun Ammunition Options for Home Defense
Shotgun ammunition comes in a wide array of options allowing adaptability for most any need. Many recommend “buckshot” ammunition for home defense since it is designed to dispatch deer in a hunting situation.
A deer and a human both require about the same amount of penetration and energy to quickly end life. So, buckshot is a logical choice.
But if a child is sleeping on the other side of the drywall interior wall, overpenetration becomes a big concern. For that reason, I lean more toward using “birdshot” for home defense. The smaller pellets in birdshot produce less penetration than buckshot and are much less likely to go through the walls. Birdshot may not be lethal as quickly, but it will definitely stop a human threat at close range.
Slug ammo is different in that it has one very large projectile per shotgun shell rather than numerous pellets. Slugs were designed for big game hunting. With slugs, you lose the advantage of multiple projectiles, but if you want to barricade yourself in the back closet and then punch holes through the walls to eliminate the threat then that’s the right round. It will destroy what it hits.
The most common shotgun used in the hunting world is the 12 gauge shotgun, which offers the largest selection of models as well as ammunition varieties, choke tubes, and supporting products. Game from the smallest to the largest can be effectively taken with a 12 gauge. And there are tailored rounds and choke tubes for every species of game.
The term “gauge” has its origins in the days of the muzzle-loading guns when “gauge” was determined by how many lead balls the same size of the gun bore’s diameter could roll down the gun’s barrel to make a pound. So, in a 20 gauge shotgun, it takes 20 lead balls with a diameter equal to the diameter of the barrel to add up to one pound.
Aside from the 12 gauge, there are several other popular shotgun gauge sizes.
A .410 gauge shotgun is often a good choice for a youth or a small-framed person who is physically unable to handle a larger weapon. And, yes, a .410 can be used for deer hunting, with limitations.
I started my hunting career with a .410 and have many fond memories of hunting squirrels, rabbits, and doves and quail with it. I do not, however, have fond memories of deer hunting with it. Ammo choices are very restricted with a .410. You can either choose the smallest slug of any shotgun or use a buckshot load with 3 to 5 pellets.
Additionally, most .410s don’t offer the variety of choke selection that can be found with larger gauges. So, adjusting the pattern is not really an option. After using a .410 for a couple of seasons, I graduated to a 20 gauge shotgun. It was then that I felt like I was truly “in the game.”
The 20 Gauge
With the 20 gauge shotgun, there are many more ammunition choices, more firearm choices, and more choke tube options to allow you to control what your ammunition does.
And for youngsters and those with smaller body types, a large number of youth and compact 20 gauge models are on the market. I would recommend that most hunters use a 20 gauge or larger shotgun for hunting.
The 10 Gauge
The 10 gauge is the largest shotgun you’re likely to find hunting in North America. It is truly superior when large payloads of large pellets are required. But it’s also a heavy and cumbersome weapon for most people. The ammo options for 10 gauge shotguns are primarily geared for hunting large game. So, it is not a viable choice for many hunting applications.
In recent years, shotgun makers have borrowed from many rifle manufacturers’ playbooks by creating specialty shotguns and specialty barrels to be used on regular shotguns. By using rifling in the barrel (just like in a rifle barrel), shotgun slugs can be fired more accurately and at greater distances with specialty slug guns.
Prior to recent slug gun innovations, the older slugs had rifling built into the slug itself and were made for traditional smooth bore shotguns barrels. They were accurate to the same distance that most shotguns were effective with regular forms of shot ammo.
Newer “sabot” slugs have a jacket around a rifle-type projectile that, coupled with a rifled barrel, provides spin, which enables shooters to achieve rifle-type accuracy at 3 or 4 times the distance of older slug types. These weapons are primarily used for deer hunting. And many areas of the country are now moving away from allowing shot for deer hunting in favor of slugs.
Shotgun Shooting Sports
There are numerous organized and recreational shooting sports to participate in with shotguns. Skeet, sporting clays, trap, helice, and other shooting sports draw a lot of people. There are opportunities to go to a facility and do this on your own, to join a friendly shoot with others, or to participate in competition. At the highest level, there are big stakes involved.
In shooting sports, most competitors use a 12 or 20 gauge. But the shooting sports are where the sub-gauges really shine. Many will use a .410 or 28 gauge for the added challenge. Any hunting type shotgun will work fine for shooting clays, and it’s great practice to prepare for wingshooting before the season.
For those who don’t hunt or who take clays more seriously, there are many shotguns on the market that are customized specifically for the clay target sports. Many Over-Under shotguns in particular are frequently tailored for the clay shooter, as are quite a few Semi-Automatic shotgun models.
3-Gun is another shooting sport involving shotgun, handgun, and rifle courses with scoring based on time and accuracy. Most 3-Gun tailored shotguns are semi-automatic and very high capacity in order to allow the shooter to engage numerous targets in the quickest time possible.
In a future article, we’ll survey various shotgun designs and their uses. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to give us a call or send us an email for more information about shotguns. We’re always glad to help.
A member of the Green Top family since 2003, Brad Stephenson is Green Top’s Waterfowl and Turkey Specialist. He grew up in a hunting family, going along with his dad in a backpack as an infant. He started chasing quail, squirrel, and deer, and began duck hunting at the age of 13. He called in his first spring gobbler on his second hunt at 14 and never misses a day of the spring season.
Brad has been able to hunt with some of Virginia’s top pros and he continues to take others who are new to the sport with him to introduce them to the hunting way of life. From whitewater rivers in the mountains to tidal marshes along the coast and everywhere in between, Brad continues to hone his hunting skills and provide a vast base of knowledge for Green Top customers seeking the best tips on calls and gear to use while chasing our feathered friends. (Photo: Brad awaiting the perfect moment as he aims at a flock passing overhead.)
*Special thanks also to Garren Meyers and to Andrew Napier for contributing to this article.